American Univesity of Beirut

The Struggle of Migrant Domestic Workers Amidst the Lebanese Economic Crisis

Christian Wakim

For a while now, Lebanon has been the center of attention of many international news outlets. However, that is not because of the biggest Tabbouleh plate or a new record set by mountaineer Maxime Chaaya, but rather because of the persisting financial crisis that the country is going through. Lebanon has had its fair share of social and political conflicts  in the past, but the last years (2019-present) have been considered some of Lebanon's darkest days. It all started with the Lebanese revolution in 2019, which suddenly stopped capital flows. Then came the pandemic, the Beirut Port explosion, and many other factors over the past 30 years that contributed to the continuous devaluation of the Lebanese Lira. One of the many sectors which were massively hit by this crisis was the services sector. Thus, the main focus of the article will be the effect of the Lebanese crisis on women's labor market outcomes–more specifically, female migrant domestic workers. 

Many Lebanese families hire domestic workers to help with responsibilities inside the household, such as cleaning, cooking, taking care of the children, etc. These domestic workers sare primarily of Asian and African nationalities, migrating from their home countries and seeking employment in Lebanon. However, the future of domestic workers in Lebanon is in jeopardy as the economic situation is deteriorating by the minute. Currently, there are over 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon hired in private households. Caught in the middle of multiple crises and at the mercy of an oppressive Kafala “sponsorship" system, many migrant domestic workers in the country have found themselves in a horrible situation.

According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women for short), “women make up 99 per cent of migrant domestic workers who come to Lebanon for employment.". They usually come from African and South Asian countries such as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and so on. 

Following the economic crisis, there has been a significant  decrease in the demand for domestic workers, as more than half of the Lebanese population has entered a state of poverty. Most Lebanese people are still being paid at the official exchange rate of LBP 1,515 for the dollar, while the exchange rate in the black market has reached just over LBP 27,000 for the dollar at the time this essay is being written . Knowing that the minimum wage in Lebanon is LBP 675,000, which is equivalent to US$ 25, and the majority of the population belongs to the middle class, it has become impossible to pay for the domestic workers in US dollars. As Anchal Vohra reported in their 2021 article, “domestic workers, 50 percent of those who lived here, have left. Others are leaving" since they aren't receiving their already low salary.

Having someone to clean the homes, look after the children, or even cook has become a form of luxury. Many employers are getting rid of their domestic workers by kicking them out on the streets because they can't pay their wages . Apart from  suffering from the Kafala system, which is already enough of a nightmare for domestic workers, they have to work for discriminatory employers who consider them  as inferior, confiscate  their passports upon arrival, and  oblige them to work until the end of their contract without any rights. Employers can also be abusive and inhumane, inflicting verbal and physical abuse, long working hours with no breaks, and forced detention, etc. This situation has led many young female migrant workers to rightfully refuse coming to work in Lebanon under such conditions, and has unfortunately left many unprotected under the Kafala system and unable to flee the country.

In conclusion, the Lebanese financial crisis has affected many sectors, leading to a considerable reduction in employment. The unemployment rate has been slowly increasing and has already reached 50%, according to the Labor Force and Household Living Conditions Survey (LFHLCS) in Lebanon (2018-2019). Female domestic workers have been greatly impacted by the crisis in Lebanon as a result of the constantly increasing exchange rate, the inability of many employers to pay workers their wages , and the abusive treatment. Their silent suffering deserves more attention.

 

 

Photo credits: White and teal steam clothes iron plugged on ironing board. Unsplash. Unsplash License.

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